An Unhappy Childhood
Anna Karina was born Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer in Copenhagen on the 22nd of September 1940. Her father was a ship’s captain who left her mother while she was still only a baby. Her maternal grandparents initially raised her until the age of four, after which she spent time in and out of foster homes, before returning to live with her mother and her new husband from the age of eight. Feeling herself unwanted and unloved, Anna became a serial runaway, trying to find boats to take her to Sweden or even America, anywhere far away from Copenhagen.
Anna’s one dream was to become an actress, but drama school in Denmark didn’t start for students until the age of twenty-one, which seemed an eternity away. She rarely attended school, and when she did turn up for her certificate exams, the school refused to believe that she had achieved such good marks without cheating. The injustice was too much for her, and at fourteen she left. She found work as a lift operator in a department store and as an assistant to an illustrator.
For a couple of years, she worked as a film extra and even starred in a short film by the director Ib Schedes, who approached her in the street and cast her as the lead in his forty-minute film The Girl with Shoes. However the situation at home became increasingly difficult. One evening, in the course of a row in which her stepfather beat her badly, she told her mother she was leaving. With only the equivalent of about $15 in her pocket given to her by her grandfather, she headed for Paris, where some of the actors she had met as an extra now were.
A New Start
When she arrived in Paris in the summer of 1958, mainly by hitchhiking, she made her way to the Champs Élysées where a young priest found her a tiny room on the rue Pavée, just behind the Bastille. For weeks she eked out an existence anyway she could. She was almost starving and spoke very little French. Then one day, her wanderings took her to the Left Bank and Saint Germain des Prés. She sat down for a moment at Les Deux Magots, the café that Jean-Paul Satre made famous. A woman called Catherine Harlé approached her and asked her whether she would be willing to do some photos. Anna was suspicious at first but when she found out it was a professional shoot for a fashion magazine called Jours de France, she agreed. At the end of the shoot, Harlé told her that she wasn’t very talented but nevertheless gave her some addresses of other contacts.
In a short time, Anna established herself as one of the top models in advertising and received a steady stream of work. One of them was a shoot for the magazine Elle. On the set she met the legendary Coco Chanel who asked her what she wanted to do with her life. When Anna explained that she wanted to be an actress, Coco asked her name. “Hanna Karin Bayer,” Anna replied. “You can’t possibly become an actress with a name like that.” By the time she left the shoot, Coco had rechristened her Anna Karina, which she became from then on.
Although, she was still too young to even own a cheque book, Anna was now earning a considerable amount of money and was able to move into an apartment off the Champs Élysée. Her dream was still to go to drama school, but first she had to improve her French, which she did by sitting all day in cinemas, watching films again and again until she understood what was being said.
Jean-Luc Godard first saw Karina in a soap ad for Palmolive, in which she appeared in a bath up to her neck in soapsuds. At the time he was in the middle of casting À bout de souffle (Breathless) and needed an actress to play the small role of one of Michel Poiccard’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo) previous girlfriends. He sent her a telegram asking her to come to Georges de Beauregard’s office. When she appeared, she found the director waiting for her. He looked at her through his dark glasses and told her she had the job. “Mind you,” he said, “you’ll have to take your clothes off.” Anna took immediate offence and told him in no uncertain terms that she didn’t take her clothes off. Godard replied, “But I saw you in the soap ad.” At this she lost her temper. “Are you mad? I was fully clothed in those ads, and the soapsuds went up to my neck. It was in your mind I was undressed.” She then stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
Later in 1959, after he had finished filming À bout de souffle, Godard sent her a second telegram: “Mademoiselle, this time it’s for the principle role.” Anna was initially reluctant, but friends, including the actor Claude Brasseur, assured her that Godard, on the strength of press reports and the first private screenings of his debut film, was already the most talked about new director in town. Karina presented herself at the audition. Godard looked her up and down and told her: “you’re right for the part. We’ll sign the contract tomorrow.” Anna was shocked. She asked him what the project was about. He told her it was a political film. “But I don’t know anything about politics,” she said. “All you have to do is what I tell you,” was his reply. Then Anna remembered that as a minor she could not sign a contract. “Well then, your mother can sign.” Anna explained that her mother lived in Copenhagen and was still angry with her. Godard said they would get her on a plane and handed Anna the phone. She hadn’t spoken to her mother in a year and her mother put the phone down on her. But another phone call persuaded her, and the next day she arrived by plane.
Another crisis was averted when France Soir, the most popular newspaper at the time, published some gossip that said Jean-Luc Godard had found his “amie” for his next film. When Anna read this, she was furious at the implication that she had won her role by becoming the director’s girlfriend. She rang the producer’s office in tears and told them, “I’m not going to do this film. I’m not a whore.” Soon after there was a knock on her door. It was Godard with fifty red roses. He explained that he had come up with the idea of advertising for the part in the trade paper, La Cinématheque Francaise, before giving her the role. His advert had read: “Jean-Luc Godard who has just finished “Breathless” and who is in pre-production of “Le Petit Soldat” is looking for a young woman between 18 and 27 who will be both his actress (interprète) and his friend (amie).” Realising she had misinterpreted, Anna rejoined the production.
Le Petit Soldat was shot in the spring of 1960 in Geneva on a low budget. Set against the violent events of the Algerian war of independence, the film tells the story of Bruno Forestier, played by Michel Subor, a supporter of the right-wing OAS on the run from France and engaged in an undercover war in Switzerland. Anna Karina played the role of Veronica Dreyer, a pro-Algerian activist who falls in love with him. Her boyfriend, Ghislain Dussart, loosely employed as the unit photographer, accompanied Anna during the shoot. The production of the film was long and drawn out with Godard often calling off a day’s filming because he had no ideas. Some observers believed Godard was taking his time so he could spend more time with Karina. She later remembered that there was a lot of eye contact on the shoot but nothing more.
In the middle of the shoot, the whole crew came together for a dinner in Lausanne. Anna’s boyfriend was at the head of the table with Godard on his left and Anna on his right, facing each other. Halfway through dinner, Anna felt a hand grasp hers under the table and put something in it. Godard then stood up and said he was leaving. No sooner had he left, than Anna rushed into the next room, desperate to see what he had given her. The message on the paper read, “I love you. Rendez-vous at the Café de la Paix at midnight.” But her boyfriend had rushed after her and grabbed the paper out of her hand. He implored her not to go but by now she realised that she was in love with Godard too and had to go to him. At the café, Godard was reading the paper; Anna sat down in front of him and waited for him to lower it. Finally he did. “So here you are,” he said. “Let’s go.”
The couple were inseparable for the rest of the shoot. When it wrapped, Godard drove her back to Paris. As they reached the city, Godard asked: “Where should I leave you?” Anna replied, “You can’t leave me. I’ve only got you in the world.”
Anna moved into the Alesia, the hotel on the rue Chateaubriand where Godard lived. Then, after a few weeks, he asked her to find them an apartment, and she rented one in rue Pasquier. Their first year together was the happiest of their relationship. They would drive or walk around Paris at night; watch movies and visit friends. They even bought a couple of dogs which Anna named Pousse Pousse Blanc and Pousse Pousse Noir. At the same time character traits – in Godard’s case jealousy, and in Karina’s case desperate loneliness – began to emerge which would ultimately tear them apart.
Anna later recalled that Godard wanted her to give up acting completely after they moved in together. However, when the mainstream director Michel Deville offered her a leading role in the comedy he was about to start filming, she jumped at the chance and accepted. Godard was contemptuous of the screenplay for Ce Soir ou jamais (Tonight or Never), nevertheless he drove her to the set each day, and when he saw the rushes realised that she would be perfect for his next film too.
A Troubled Relationship
Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961) was a complete change of genre and mood from Godard’s first two features. It was a musical comedy but with a realistic setting about a stripper named Angela, played by Karina who is determined to have a baby and blackmails her boyfriend played by Jean-Claude Brialy into committing to marriage and parenthood, by having an affair with his friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo). During the shoot, relations between Godard and Karina were often stormy. Brialy described their tormented union: “They tore each other apart, argued, loved each other, hated each other, screamed at each other.” Godard had sketched out the scenario for the film long before he met Karina and had originally intended it to be a light-hearted comedy, but the adjustments he made during the filming made the story much more autobiographical, specifically in regard to his relationship with Karina. He used the comedy framework to express difficult truths about their relationship.
The parallels between real life and the movie, were further underlined when Karina became pregnant. Godard insisted that they marry. There were two weddings. The first took place in Begnins, Switzerland on March 3, 1961, followed three weeks later by another in Paris for the benefit of the couple’s Parisian friends and the press. This second ceremony was captured in photos taken by Agnes Varda, who would cast the couple in the silent movie extract in her film Cléo de 5 à 7 that summer. The couple now had a regular social life, frequently visiting friends like Varda and her husband Jacques Demy to play cards on Sundays, and joining Karina’s friends on trips to nightclubs.
Godard often seemed uneasy in these gatherings and rarely spoke. Obsessed with work, he would spend his time at the Cahiers offices, or say he was going out for some cigarettes and return three weeks later. Meanwhile, Anna was often left alone in the apartment waiting for the phone to ring. Then one night in the spring of 1961, Godard returned home to find her in great distress and covered in blood. She had miscarried, and her health was in danger. After a stay in hospital, she recuperated at home. However, Godard, unable to deal with the situation, left her in the care of friends for several weeks. On his return, he tried to make amends by renting a villa in the south of France, but while driving there for a vacation, Godard turned the car around saying he didn’t have time for it, there was too much work to do.
In June of 1961, Godard and Karina were at the opening of Une femme est une femme at the Berlin Film Festival. Both Karina and the film won prizes. It was the world’s first view of Karina onscreen (Ce Soir ou jamais had yet to be released and Le Petit Soldat had been banned by the censor for its political content), and when the film was released in September of that year she became an instant star. One critic called her “an incontestable ‘natural’ who wins out over the professionalism of Brialy and Belmondo.” The positive reviews, however, did not translate into box-office success, almost certainly due to Godard’s audacious mix of sound and image, which perplexed the mainstream audience.
The box office failure of Une femme est une femme came at a time when the New Wave directors were coming under increasingly hostile attacks in the press. In this climate Godard struggled to set up his next film, which he hoped would further showcase his wife’s acting. Anna was not willing to wait. In September 1961, she began work on Le Soleil dans l’oeil (Sun in the Eyes) directed by Jacques Bourdon. During the course of the shoot, she began an affair with her co-star Jacques Perrin and decided she wanted marry him. She told Godard of her intention to leave him towards the end of the filming. In the row that followed, Godard physically destroyed all the possessions in their apartment and left. Later that night, Anna took an overdose of barbiturates. She was found by Perrin who called an ambulance. She was hospitalized and released a few days later. The papers reported that Godard and Karina would divorce and that Karina would marry Perrin. But in January of 1962, it was announced that Godard and Karina had reconciled and that he would direct her in a new film, Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live).
Vivre sa vie was a breakthrough for both Godard and Karina and proved to be amongst the highpoints of both their careers. The genre this time was tragedy; the bleak tale of a young woman’s descent into prostitution and eventual murder. Godard conceived the film as a showcase for his wife’s talent; an attempt also, perhaps, to save their marriage through cinematic collaboration. In the event, she repaid him well, delivering a stunning performance, both truthful and moving. Despite their mutual achievement and the acclaim in brought, however, Karina was resentful of her appearance in the film. “She was furious,” Godard later recalled, “because she thought I had made her look ugly, that I had done a considerable wrong by having made the film; that was the beginning of our breakup.”
After completing the film, an opportunity arose for Karina to fulfil her ambition of working in the theatre. Jacques Rivette had written an adaptation of Denis Diderot’s eighteenth century novel La Religieuse (The Nun). He had not yet decided on an actress to play the lead role, but after having dinner with Anna and Jean-Luc, he realised that Karina would be perfect, seeing in her someone who could bring the grace of D.W. Griffith’s silent movie heroines to the role. The producer Georges de Beauregard was sceptical that Karina, with her Danish accent, would be convincing in the part of the persecuted French nun. But Anna persevered, taking lessons to improve her pronunciation. Because of its controversial subject matter, it would take some years for the filmmakers to raise the finance for the film. In the meantime, Godard himself paid for a theatrical staging of the work in at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées. Anna’s performance was a triumph, winning prizes and compliments from leading theatrical lights.
Later that year, Anna travelled to Spain to play the title role in a big-budget historical fantasy, Scheherazade. Meanwhile, Godard, on a role of inspiration and energy after Vivre sa vie, directed, in quick succession, metaphorical war film Les Carabiniers, two short films, and Le Mepris (Contempt, 1963). This last, an emotionally raw account of a marital break up set against the intrigues of the international film industry, starred France’s biggest star, Brigitte Bardot, and once again gave Godard a vehicle through which to dramatize events in his marriage. Indeed, the character of Camille was based less on Bardot’s personality, than on Anna Karina’s. Many of the lines spoken by Bardot in the film were things Karina herself had said to Godard. In one scene, Bardot wore the short dark wig that Karina had worn in Vivre sa vie, and, as she later recalled, Godard even wanted her to walk like Karina. The director’s preoccupation with his wife became an obstacle for Bardot; she felt unable to forge any kind of personal relationship with Godard and deliberately detached herself from him.
During the filming in Rome, Godard often returned to Paris to see her on weekends. Karina, in turn, visited him in Rome. On one occasion, they went to a nightclub together, someone invited Anna to dance, she went with him, and when she came back, Godard gave her a slap in the face, in front of everybody. But she wasn’t angry, because it was proof of his love in her eyes: “It was mad love. Love, jealousy, revenge. We adored each other. We were passionate but had crises of jealousy,” she later recalled.
Late in 1963, Godard and Karina again separated, and he again sought reconciliation through a shared film project. It had been almost two years since Godard and Karina had worked together in Vivre sa vie. Since then, she had appeared in a number of commercial vehicles and had become a well-known actress. However she was by no means a star, and despite the acclaim she had received for some of these roles, had failed to reach the artistic heights achieved through collaborations with her husband. The new film, based on an American crime novel called Fool’s Gold, had much riding on it for Godard. Success would help to establish his new production company, Anouchka Films, as well as re-establishing him as a commercial director. Even more importantly it would give Anna the kind of success she craved, and by doing so, help secure their marriage.
That winter, as Godard worked on pre-production for Bande à part, Karina tried to commit suicide again. This time she was alone for a whole weekend and would have died if the Italian painter who was decorating the house had not forgotten his keys and come back to retrieve them. At this point Godard had her committed to a mental hospital. After a nightmarish spell inside, she found herself talking with a doctor about why she wanted to die, and for the first time began to come to terms with the death of her child. When Godard picked her up at the end of February, he told her they would begin shooting the new movie in three days.
Despite her recent trauma, Anna proved her versatility as an actress in Bande à part, playing Odile, a young woman, who gets involved in a romantic triangle with two petty criminals played by Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey. She is a captivating presence in the film, at times charming, at others poignantly vulnerable. She later recalled her state of mind at the time of the filming: “I had come out of hospital. It was a painful moment. I had lost the taste for life at that time. In the meantime I had lost weight, I wasn’t doing well, neither in my head nor in my body. It’s true: the film saved my life. I had no more desire to live. I was doing very, very badly. This film saved my life.”
During the making of Bande à part, Godard and Karina reconciled, moving into a new apartment in the Latin Quarter. Karina continued working, accepting a supporting role in Jean Aurel’s De l’amour, filmed in April 1964, and a starring role opposite Maurice Ronet in Le Voleur de Tibidabo (The Thief of Tibidado), who was also making his directorial debut. During filming, Ronet and Karina had an affair. In the resulting fallout, Godard and Karina separated and filed for divorce.
Regardless of their separation, Anna and Jean-Luc agreed to work together again on the sci-fi noir thriller Alphaville, in which Karina’s character joins forces with secret agent gumshoe Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) to destroy the evil computer Alpha 60. Although their divorce became final on December 21, 1964, Godard had not given up hope that cinematic collaboration would bring them back together. He instilled his personal concerns into the film; Lemmy Caution’s effort to teach Karina’s character to say the words, “I love you,” could be seen as a kind of wish fulfilment. And it wasn’t all one-sided, according to at least one eyewitness on the set; their love was still very much alive during the making of the film.
Love, Hate, Action, Violence, Death
By the time they came to make their next film together, however, any enduring affection had been replaced by pain and bitterness. Very loosely adapted from a novel by Lionel White titled Obsession, Pierrot le fou was Godard’s angry onscreen dramatization of what he saw as Karina’s betrayal. While filming, the couple could hardly talk to each other, and when they did it was in snarls and groans. During one exchange, Karina said,”What should I do?” and Godard said, “You have a mouth to talk with, don’t you?” Belmondo, the other star of the film, described them as “like a cobra and a mongoose, always glaring at each other.” In spite of these difficulties, the film proved to be perhaps the best of all their collaborations and has, over time, become acknowledged as one of cinemas greatest and most influential masterpieces.
Karina next worked with Italian neo-realist director, Valerio Zurlini, on the World War II film, Le Soldatesse (The Camp Followers, 1965), as one of a group of prostitutes who travel through the mountains to serve in brothels for Italian soldiers in Albania. This was followed by Jacques Rivette’s long-awaited film version of Le Religieuse (The Nun, 1966), in which she gives a heartrending performance as a rebellious nun persecuted by the Mother Superior of her convent. The film was initially banned by the French government’s information minister, until Georges de Beauregard and a group of his friends, including Godard and Chabrol, orchestrated an outcry in the press, issuing a manifesto in defence of it. Eventually, the minister of culture, André Malraux, stepped in and allowed the film to appear at Cannes. There it received resounding applause from the audience and acclaim from the critics, leading to President de Gaulle himself to step in and lift the ban on the film. It was eventually released on July 26, 1967, and proved a critical and commercial success.
In the summer of 1966, Anna returned to work with Jean-Luc Godard, as a trench coat wearing private eye investigating the death of a former lover mixed up in the murky world of French colonial politics, in Made in U.S.A. Once again, Godard used the narrative as means to explore his romantic trials with Karina. At one point her character says, “We were hardly seeing each other anymore. I don’t even know whether I still love him, but I owed him something because of what was between us.” Relations were as bad as ever on the set. Indeed Godard was so unpleasant to his former wife that even cameraman Raoul Coutard was moved to comment that he shouldn’t treat her so badly. Aside from a short film they made together the following year, it was the last time they would work together. In an interview years later, Karina said: “He was and will remain the greatest love of my life.”
An International Star
The charismatic singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg was Karina’s next collaborator on a TV musical entitled Anna, which he wrote especially for her. The film, which included the hits, Sous le soleil exactement and Roller Girl, both sung by Karina, has since become a cult favourite.
Now an established name because of her work with Godard, Karina increasingly received offers to work outside of France. Over the following years she worked with some of the world’s most acclaimed directors, including Luchino Visconti (The Stranger, 1967), Guy Green (The Magus, 1968), J. Lee Thompson (Before Winter Comes, 1969), Tony Richardson (Laughter in the Dark, 1969), Volker Schlondorff (Michael Kohlhaas – Der Rebell, 1969) and George Cukor (Justine, 1969). On the whole these productions failed to live up to their potential, although Karina continued to receive good reviews for her performances.
In 1968, Anna remarried, this time to scriptwriter/actor Pierre Fabre (they divorced in 1973). Her most notable film appearances in the early 1970s were in Christian de Chalonge’s allegorical fantasy L’Alliance (1971), Andre Delvaux’s surreal and visually stunning Rendez-vous à Bray (1971), espionage thriller The Salzburg Connection (1972), Franco Brusati’s Bread and Chocolate, and Emidio Greco’s L’Invenzione di Morel, an adaptation of the classic science fiction novel The Invention of Morel (1974) by Adolfo Bioy Casares.
In 1973 Anna made her directorial debut, as well as writing and starring in Vivre ensemble (Living Together), which tells the story of a free-spirited woman who becomes romantically involved with an uptight professor. Drawn into her world, he loses his job and falls in with her drug-taking, hippie friends. Although it met with mixed reviews, Francois Truffaut was amongst those who praised the film for its honest and revealing insights into the social contradictions of the time.
By the 1970s a new generation of European auteurs had established themselves. Perhaps the closest to Jean-Luc Godard in both temperament and inexhaustible creativity was the New German cinema director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In 1976 he cast Karina in the complex psychological drama Chinese Roulette in which she played the lover of a wealthy businessman whose infidelities are exposed by his disabled daughter.
Such serious subject matter was not typical of her work at this time; most of her roles were in lighter fare such as television cop show like Dossiers: Danger immédiat or comedies like Ausgerechnet Bananen (Monkey Business, 1978) and Chaussette surprise and an adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen short story called The Story of a Mother (1979). In 1978, she returned to the theatre for Francoise Sagan’s Il fait beau jour et nuit. The same year she married for the third time to actor/director Daniel Duval, only to divorce him in 1981. She remarried again in 1982 to director Dennis Barry, a union that lasted until 1994.
In the 1980s there were fewer good roles for Anna, who was now in her forties. Among her better films were Chilean director Raoul Ruiz’s inspired re-imagining of Treasure Island, L’Ile au trésor (1985) and André Delvaux’s of Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Oeuvre au noir (1988). Perhaps her most acclaimed role in these years wasn’t on celluloid, but on stage, in a theatre version of Ingmar Bergman’s After the Rehearsal.
New Wave Icon
In more recent years, Anna has appeared in cameo roles in Jacques Rivette’s Haut, bas, fragile (Up, Down, Fragile 1995), and Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie (2002), both of which play on her symbolic status as an icon of the Nouvelle Vague. In 2007, she wrote, directed and starred in Victoria, a musical road movie filmed in Montreal, Quebec and Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean. Variety praised the film as “a pleasant gambol through the backwoods of Quebec… Given plenty of room to work off each other, the members of this fine ensemble keep the picture on track.”
Outside of acting, Anna has carried on a successful career as a singer. In 2000 she released a CD entitled Une histoire d’amour, recorded with Philippe Katerine, which was followed by a successful concert tour. This was followed in 2005 by Chansons de films, a collection of songs sung in movies. She has also written two novels, Jusqu’au bout de hazard and Golden City, both only available in French.